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The Chemistry of Fullness and Satiation

  • Eating

In a very interesting article (NY Times Opinion, 6/4/23), “What Ozempic Reveals about Desire,” Maia Szalavitz explains how the brain works vis a vis food. As a fully recovered binge-eater and eating disorders therapist for 35 years, it would be almost impossible for me not to have a fascination with what goes on inside us (and went on inside me) when we’re out of control around food. I hope that writing about the science helps you understand your eating better. By discussing Ozempic and other so-called “weight-loss” drugs, I am in no way endorsing them or encouraging their use.

One enlightening nugget in the article is that the brain registers two primary types of pleasure according to Kent Berridge, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan. One he labels “wanting,” about which he says, “The positive side of wanting is feeling empowered and focused on getting what you desire; the negative side, of course, is craving that goes unsatiated.” The second type of pleasure is “liking,” which is “linked with the satisfaction and comfort of having achieved your goal.” 

Psychiatrist Donald Klein distinguishes these two kind of joys as “the pleasures of the hunt or the feast.” The pleasure of the hunt really registered with me: finding just the brand and flavor of ice cream to please my palate used to feel like a quest. So many clients have described their binge-food seeking this way. And, ah, the euphoria I felt merely anticipating downing my favorite ice cream in one fell swoop. 

Szalavitz describes how “wanting circuits tend to rely on the neurotransmitter dopamine, while liking is more associated with the brain’s natural opioids” and says that “When this circuitry works harmoniously, wanting and liking are tuned down after a need is satisfied. This is why, ‌for most people, once they are full, more food is unappealing.”

It makes sense that hunger drives us to eat (or we’d die) and that food is pleasurable to get us to eat it. Yet, sometimes you may feel driven to continue eating though you’re not enjoying your food as much as you did when you started. You see that others feeling food satisfaction and wonder what’s wrong with you. Could it be that you’re actually not hungry for food in the first place—but are emotionally yearning for something else like people, comfort, stimulation, etc. If so, eating more will never satisfy you.

One article recommendation is “reducing the value that motivational systems place on getting more food now.” The goal is not to block pleasure, but to shift attention away from finding it in food. My advice is to look for pleasure elsewhere or get in touch with your real emotional wants and find effective ways to meet them.